A Navy Story - Truculent Turtle
Another version with updated photos forwarded by Bruce DeWald firstname.lastname@example.org [25FEB2016]
Lockheed Truculent Turtle - 55 hours/11,200 miles nonstop 1946
The oxidized Lockheed ' Truculent Turtle ' had been squatting next to a Navy Air Station's main gate, completely exposed to the elements and getting ragged around the edges.
Finally recognizing the Turtle's singular historic value to aviation was moved to Pensacola to receive a badly required and pristine restoration.
It is now - gleamingly hanging - from the National Naval Aviation Museum's ceiling where it earned its distinction.
Taxiing tests demonstrated that its Lockheed P2V-1's landing gear might fold while bearing the Turtle's extreme weight before carrying it airborne. And during taxi turns its landing gear struts could fail beneath such huge load.
For that reason, the Turtle was only partially filled with fuel before it was positioned at the head of Australia's Pearce Aerodrome runway 27 at 7 A.M. on September 29th, 1946.
Lined up for take-off, all fueling was completed by 4:00 p.m. At the same time JATO packs were carefully attached to its fuselage for the jet-assist required to shove the Truculent Turtle fast enough to take-off before going off the far end of the of the runway.
The Turtle would attempt its take-off with CDR Thomas D. Davies, as pilot in command, in the left seat and CDR Eugene Rankin, the copilot, in the right seat.
In CDR Rankin's own words:
In the late P.M on the 29th, the weather in SW Australia was beautiful. And at 1800, the two 2,300 hp Wright R-3350 engines were warming up.
We were about to takeoff from 6,000 feet of runway with a gross weight of 85,561 pounds [ the standard P2V was gross weight limited at only . . s-i-x-t-y f-i-v-e t-h-o-u-s-a-n-d ! ]
Sitting in the copilot's seat, I remember thinking about my wife, Virginia, and my three daughters and asking myself, ' What am I doing here in this situation ? ' I took a deep breath and wished for the best.
At 6:11 p.m., CDR Tom Davies stood hard on the brakes as both throttles were pushed forward to max power.
At the far end of the mile-long runway he could make out the throng of news reporters and photographers.
Scattered across the air base were hundreds of picnickers who came to witness the spectacle of a [ JATO ] jet assisted takeoff.
They all stood up as they heard the sound of the engines being advanced to full military power. Davies and Rankin scanned the engine instruments. Normal. Davies raised his feet from the brakes.
On this day, on September 29, 1946, the reciprocating engine Turtle was a veritable winged gas tank . . thirteen TONS beyond the two-engine Lockheed's Maximum Gross Weight Limitations.
The Truculent Turtle rumbled and bounced on tires that had been over-inflated to handle the heavy load. Slowly it began to pick up speed. As each 1,000-foot runway sign went by, Rankin called out the airspeed and compared it to predicted figures on his lap's clipboard .
With the second 1,000-foot sign astern, the Turtle was committed to the take-off.
Davies could no longer stop on the remaining runway. It was now . . fly or burn.
[ Secretly . . some of the excited end-of-runway watchers may have wanted to see the airplane crash and burn. ]
When the slightly quivering airspeed needle touched 87 knots, Davies punched a button wired to his yoke, and the four JATO bottles fired from attachment points on the aft fuselage.
The crew's ears filled with JATO bottles' ROAR . . bodies FEELING the JATO's thrust. For a critical twelve seconds, the JATO provided the thrust of a third engine.
At about 4,500 feet down the runway, 115 knots was reached on the airspeed indicator, and Davies pulled the nose wheel off.
There were some long seconds while the main landing gear continued to rumble over the last of the runway. Then the rumbling stopped as the main landing gear rumbled off the runway and the full load of the aircraft shifted to the wings.
As soon as they were airborne . . but still only an estimated five feet above the ground . . Davies called ' gear up.'
Rankin moved the wheel-shaped actuator on the pedestal between the pilots to the up position, and the wheels came up. Davies tapped the brakes to stop the wheels from spinning. And the wheel-well doors closed just as the JATO bottles burned out.
Behind the pilots in the aft fuselage, CDR Walt Reid kept his hand on the dump valve that could quickly lighten their fuel load in an emergency.
Roy Tabeling, at the radio position, kept all his switches turned off for now to prevent the slightest spark.
The Turtle had an estimated 20 feet of altitude and 130 knots of airspeed when the JATO bottles burned out. The JATO bottles were not just to give the Turtle additional speed on take-off, but were intended to improve the rate of climb immediately after lift-off.
Purposely, the Turtle's pilot barely cleared the trees . . a quarter of a mile beyond the runway's end . . just for luck.
The field elevation of Pearce Aerodrome was about 500 feet, and the terrain to the west sloped gradually down to the Indian Ocean about six miles from the field.
So, even without climbing, the Turtle was able to gain height above the ground in the critical minutes after take-off.
After take-off, they estimated that they would be able to climb at a maximum of 400 feet per minute.
If an engine failed . . and they had to put maximum power on the other engine. . they'd be forced to ' go down ' at 200 feet per minute.
Their planning showed . . if they could climb to 1,000 feet before an engine failure they would have about four minutes to dump fuel and still have 200 feet . . to attempt a forced landing.
Using their home-made fuel dump system, they were confident that they were in good shape at any altitude above 1,000 feet. Why ? Because they could dump fuel fast enough to have a comfortable single-engine operating total fuel weight before losing too much altitude.
Departing the Aerodrome boundary, the Truculent Turtle was over the waters of the Indian Ocean.
When they had established a sluggish climb rate, Gene Rankin started bringing the flaps up in careful small increments. At 165 knots, with the flaps fully retracted, Tom Davies made his first power reduction back to the maximum continuous setting.
The Turtle had already broken one record . . never before had two engines carried so much weight into the air . . after the JATOS quit.
Their plan was to keep a fairly low 3,500 feet for the first few hundred miles, burning off some fuel, giving them a faster climb to cruise altitude . . and hopefully costing them less fuel for the overall trip.
But the southwest wind, burbling and eddying across the hills northeast of Perth, brought turbulence that shook and rattled the overloaded Turtle, tweaking the wings integrity . . strained by the enormous fuel overload.
Tom Davies applied full power and took her up to 6,500 feet where the air was smoother, reluctantly sacrificing enough fuel to fly an extra couple of hundred miles if lost, bad WX or other unexpected problems at flight's end.
Alice Springs at Australia's center, slid under the Turtle's long wings at midnight. And Cooktown on the northeast coast at dawn.
Then its belly was over the Coral Sea where, only a few years before, the LEXINGTON and YORKTOWN had sunk the Japanese ship SHOHO to win the first carrier battle in history, and prevented Australia and New Zealand from being cutoff and then isolated.
At noon on the second day, the Turtle skirted the 10,000 foot peaks of southern New Guinea, and in mid-afternoon detoured around a mass of boiling thunder-heads over the Solomon's Bougainville island.
As the sun set for the second time since takeoff, the Turtle's crew headed out across the vast and empty Pacific Ocean and began to establish a flight routine.
They stood two-man four-hour watches, washing, shaving, and changing to clean clothes each morning. And eating regular meals cooked on a hot plate. Every two hours, a fresh pilot would enter the cockpit to relieve whoever had been sitting watch the longest.
The two Wright 3350 engines ran smoothly; all the gauges and needles showed normal. And every hour another 200 or so miles of the Pacific passed astern. The crew's only worry was Joey the kangaroo, who hunched unhappily in her crate, refusing to eat or drink.
Dawn of the second morning found the Turtle halfway between Midway Island and Oahu in the long chain of Hawaiian Islands. The Turtle only had a single low-frequency radio, because most of the modern radio equipment had been removed to reduce weight.
Attempted radio calls to Midway and Hawaii for weather updates were unsuccessful due to the long distance.
Celestial navigation was showing that the Turtle was drifting southward from their intended great circle route due to increased northerly winds . . adding a headwind to factor into their multi-checked course.
Instead of correcting their course by turning more northward, thereby increasing the aircraft's relative wind, CDR Davies stayed on their current heading accepting the fact that they would reach the west coast of the U.S. somewhere in northern California rather than near Seattle as they had originally planned.
When Turtle's wing tip gas tanks went empty, they were jettisoned over the ocean. Then the Turtle eased up to 10,000 feet; later to 12,000 feet.
At noon, CDR Reid came up to the cockpit smiling. "Well," he reported, "the damned kangaroo has started to eat and drink again. I guess she thinks we're going to make it."
In the fall of 1946, the increasingly hostile Soviet Union was pushing construction of a submarine force nearly ten times larger than Hitler's. Antisubmarine warfare was the Navy's responsibility, regardless of the U.S. Army Air Force views.
The Turtle was among the first of the P2V Neptune patrol planes designed to counter the sub threat. Their orders were straight from the offices of Secretary of the Navy, Forrestal, and Fleet Admiral Nimitz.
A dramatic flight was needed to prove beyond question that the new P2V patrol plane, in production at Lockheed representing a sizeable chunk of the Navy’s skimpy peacetime budget, could do the job.
With its efficient design gifting it 4-engine capability on just two engines, the mission's success would show the Neptune's ability to cover transoceanic distances required to perform BOTH search and rescue and sea-surveillance.
At a time when new roles and missions were being developed to deliver nuclear weapons, it would not hurt a bit to show that the Navy, too, had that capability.
Now as the second full day in the air began to darken, the Pacific sky, gently clear and blue for so long, turned rough and hostile.
An hour before landfall, great rolling ' knuckles of cloud ' punched out from the coastal mountains.
The Turtle bounced around . . ice crusted on the wings . . while static blanked out its radio.
The crew strapped down hard, turned up the red instrument lights . . then took turns trying to tune the radio direction finder to a recognizable station.
It was midnight before Roy Tabeling succeeded in making contact with the ground and requested an instrument clearance Eastward from California's coast.
They were 150 miles off the coast when a delightfully female voice reached up through the WX from Williams Radio, 70 miles south of Red Bluff, California.
"I'm sorry" the voice said. "I don't seem to have a flight plan on you. Say again your point of departure ? "
"Perth, Western Australia."
"No . . I mean where did you take-off from? "
"Perth, Western Australia."
" Navy Zero Eight Two, you don't understand me . . what was your departure airport . . for THIS current leg . . of your flight?"
"Perth ? But, that's halfway around the world ! "
"No . .
About one third of the way. Now may we have that clearance, please ? "
The Turtle had departed Perth some thirty-nine hours earlier and had been out of radio contact with anyone for the past twenty hours.
That contact with Williams Radio called off a world-wide alert for ships and stations between Midway and the west coast to attempt contact with the Turtle on all frequencies.
With some difficulty due to reception, the Turtle received an instrument clearance to proceed on airways from Oakland to Sacramento and on to Salt Lake City at 13,000 feet.
The weather report was discouraging . . indicating heavy turbulence, thunderstorms, rain and icing conditions. As Gene Rankin wrote in a magazine article after the flight : "Had the Turtle been on the ground at an airport at that threatening point, the question might have arisen: ' Hey . . is this trip important enough to keep going into that lousy weather up ahead? '
The Turtle reached the west coast at 9:16 p.m. about thirty miles north of San Francisco.
Their estimated time of arrival, much further up the coast, had been 9:00 p.m. About forty hours earlier they'd taken off and had covered 9,000 statute miles.
They had broken the previous distance record by more than a thousand miles. And all of their remaining fuel was in their wing tanks . . now showing eight-tenths full. Speculation among the pilots began as to how much further the Truculent Turtle could fly before exhausting its fuel.
The static and atmospherics began demonstrating the weird and wonderful phenomenon of St. Elmo's fire . . but added more distractions to the crew's problems.
The two propellers whirled in rings of blue-white light. And violet tongues licked up between the windshields' laminations. While eerie purple spokes protruded out of the Neptune's nose cone.
All those distracting effects now increased in brilliance with an accompanying rise in static on all radio frequencies before discharging with a blinding flash and audible thump.
Then slowly rebuild itself once again.
The Turtle's oxygen system had been removed for the flight, so the pilots were using portable walk-around oxygen bottles to avoid hypoxia at the high altitude.
The St. Elmo's fire had been annoying but not dangerous. But it can be a heart-thumping experience for those witnessing it for the first time. The tachometer for the starboard engine had been acting up.
The pilots kept the fuel cross feed levers, connecting both main tanks to both engines, intentionally in its 'off ' position so each was feeding from the tank in its own wing.
Somewhere over Nevada, the starboard engine started running rough and losing power.
After scanning the gauges, the pilots surmised that the carburetor intake was icing up and choking itself. To correct that, the carburetor air preheating systems on both engines were increased to full heat to clear out any carburetor ice as quickly as possible.
Very quickly, the warm air solved the icing problem and the starboard engine ran smoothly again.
With an engine running rough, CDR Davies had to be thinking about their mission. The Turtle had broken the existing record, but was that good enough ?
It was just a matter of time before the AAF would launch another B-29 to take the record up another notch. The Neptune was now light enough for single engine flight. But what total distance could they ' grind out ' using a single engine ?
Over Nevada and Utah, the weather became a serious factor. Freezing rain, snow and ice frozen on the wings and fuselage, forcing the pilots to increase engine power . . sucking up precious gasoline . . just to maintain altitude.
The aircraft picked up a headwind. And an estimated 1,000 pounds of ice. Problematic since the plane's deicing and anti-icing equipment had been left behind as a weight-saving measure. A significant flight planning error . . because they'd never make it all the way to Bermuda anyway.
Three [ 3 ] hours of high power settings and increased fuel usage at the lower altitude of 13,000 feet would indeed slash a half thousand miles from the record breaking of distance of this flight.
After passing Salt Lake City, the weather finally broke with the dawn of the Turtle's [ 3rd ] third day in the air. The Turtle was cleared to descend to 9,000 feet.
And all morning, CDR Davies tracked their progress eastward over Nebraska, Iowa, and the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers.
To the north, Chicago's haze fuzzily appeared. And not surprisingly, the Turtle's onboard fuel became . . its worst problem.
The wingtip tanks had long ago been emptied and jettisoned over the Pacific. The bomb bay tank, the nose tank and the big aft fuselage tank were all 100% full of air.
And the fuel gauges for the final fuel's wing tanks were inexorably moving toward zero.
CDR Davies and his crew consulted, tapped the fuel gauges, calculated and recalculated their remaining fuel. And they cursed Grumman's gauges where one-eighth of an inch represented 200 gallons [ or a little more than an hour's flying time.]
At noon they concluded they could not safely stretch the flight all the way to Washington, D.C. . and certainly not to Bermuda.
CDR Davies chose the Naval Air Station at Columbus, Ohio to be their final destination.
At quarter past one that afternoon the runways and hangars of the Columbus airport were in sight. The Turtle's crew had cleaned-up and shaven and in uniform. And the fuel gauges all read empty.
With the landing checklist called out . . wheels and flaps down, CDR Davies eased the ' Turtle ' into in a 45 degree left turn towards final.
As the airplane leveled out of its final turn, the starboard engine popped, sputtered and quit.
The port engine continued smoothly.
Passing down through 400 feet . . both pilots simultaneously recognized the problem.
And their hands collided in mid-air . . as both reached between their seats for the fuel cross feed fuel lever there on the cockpit floor . . because that simple turn to final caused the critically low fuel starboard tank to stop feeding fuel into its engine.
Within seconds, the starboard engine began running smoothly again from fuel rushing across from the crossfeed.
The Turtle had been in no danger, since they were light enough to operate on one engine.
But it would have been embarrassing to have an engine quit, in front of the growing crowd watching below.
At 1:28 p.m. on October 1st, the Neptune's wheels once more touched the Earth . . HARD . . with its intentionally over-inflated tires . . required for its grossly over-weight take-off at Perth . . 11,236 miles and 55 hours and 17 minutes . . earlier.
After a hastily called press conference in Columbus, the crew was flown to NAS air station in Washington, D.C. by a Marine Corps Reserve aircraft, where they were met by their wives and the Secretary of the Navy. A flight surgeon grounded the entire crew upon landing in Columbus.
But before the day was over, the Turtle's crew had been awarded D.F.C's by Navy Secretary Forrestal. Next day, meeting an exuberant President Harry Truman.
And Joey, the kangaroo was observably relieved to be back on solid earth. And he was installed in luxurious zoo quarters.
The record established by the crew of the Truculent Turtle's crew did just not stand for a fluke year or two. But for decades.
The long-distance record for all aircraft was only broken by a jet-powered B-52, in 1962.
The Truculent Turtle's record for piston/propeller driven aircraft was broken by Burt Rutan's Voyager, a carbon-fiber aircraft, which made its historic around the world non-stop flight in 1986 . . more than four decades after the Turtle landed in Columbus, Ohio.
After a well-earned publicity tour, the Turtle was used by the Naval Air Test Center, as a flying test bed for advanced avionics systems.
The Truculent Turtle was retired with honors in 1953 and put on display in Norfolk, Virginia . . later repositioned at its main gate.
In 1977, the Truculent Turtle was transported to the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida in a place of honor in Hangar Bay One.
Many thanks to the Naval Institute Proceedings magazine, Naval Aviation News magazine, the Naval Aviation Museum Foundation magazine, CDR Eugene Rankin, CDR Walter S. Reid and CDR Edward P. Stafford, whose articles about the " Truculent Turtle " were the basis for this abridged article.
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